Residents, business tenants and land owners could soon see changes to the area along River Road in Chatham Borough.
"We have riverfront property down there, which is extremely valuable," Councilman James Collander said in the Nov. 26 Chatham Borough Council meeting. "We're not getting our full use out of that.
The area between River Road and the Passaic River from Watchung Avenue to Stanley Park is one of the borough's "M" districts, that is, parts of town zoned for industrial businesses.
Other M districts include the north side of Watchung Avenue east of the rail overpass, including Commerce Street, and the lots along North Passaic Avenue north of Rutgers Street.
Many of these areas have various businesses and residences which were grandfathered in when the areas were zoned for industrial businesses. These preexisting businesses and buildings may not conform to the uses currently allowed.
Now officials are concerned the limited uses allowed are preventing new businesses from moving into the area. By reexamining permitted uses and widening what could be allowed, members of the Chatham Borough Council and Planning Board hope to attract new businesses to the area.
"It's really just a matter of letting River Road evolve into a section of town that could be very, very, very viable," Councilman Vicki Fife said. "It's about generating revenues that the borough could certainly use. ... When you open it up, you get the option of existing businesses selling because people want to come in."
Fife cited the example of Morris Avenue in Summit. Merck has a business complex within sight of River Road in Chatham Borough, just on the other side of the Passaic River. The pharmaceutical company recently announced they will make the location their global headquarters, which will bring more residents to the area and more consumers to the River Road area in particular.
"That road is the gateway to Morris County from Union County, from Summit and from Chatham Township," Fife said, and she and Borough Engineer Vincent J. DeNave agree the area is not an attractive one.
"People are very unhappy with the way it looks," DeNave said. "We could put in design standards if we want. They wouldn't be historical [like in the B districts along Main Street], but we could make them more attractive."
As a first step toward making the area the borough's next consumer and pedestrian attraction, officials hired a surveyor to review their properties along River Road.
The borough's property along the road and the Passaic River extends from Stanley Park to the south almost all the way to Watchung Avenue. The land is on the borough's Open Space Inventory, and abuts several businesses.
"We wanted to identify if there are any encroachments on our property," DeNave said, and indeed there were "significant encroachments" and "a lot of disinformation" about where the property boundaries really are, despite some fencing having been installed several years ago.
"There are at least three businesses that currently identified as occupying our property," DeNave said. "There’s a lot of stuff being stored on the other side of that fence. I just think it’s time to pick it up."
DeNave said he will call the businesses who are storing materials on borough property and try to get them to move it.
Next, Fife, the borough's Professional Planner, Susan Blickstein, and three other members of the Chatham Borough Planning Board will then start to look at possible new uses for within the M zones.
"There are buildings and places down there for sale," Fife said. "Making that area pedestrian-friendly, I think that's something that can be done."
The subcommittee will have their first meeting early in 2013, at which point they will set official goals and determine how often they will invite members of the public and business community to participate.
"We could use the existing volunteer forms to find people to participate," Blickstein said, "or allow land owners and tenants to come in, or invite them to key meetings."
Blickstein said she envisions the group changing the permitted land uses rather than changing the zoning laws. "Zoning in the M districts is nearly identical," she said. "More recent investments [along River Road] have been for uses not permitted, and which have to go before the Zoning Board for a variance."
Fife said her object is to "bring life and vibrancy to that area." Her ideas include developing a walking trail in the open space through the borough's Explore Chatham hikes to potentially allowing condo development, shops and restaurants with outdoor dining.
The borough has several options when approaching mixed uses within certain districts. The B districts along Main Street, for example, are zoned by floors.
"We don't allow residences on the first floors," DeNave said, "but those buildings can have apartments on the upper stories."
Since residences already exist in the M districts, the borough could potentially explore development options that could increase the tax base through ratables, as Chatham Township has done in allowing condo development along their section of River Road.
"I think the potential of increased ratables is something we would be remiss not to explore," Fife said. "Having this exploratory committee to look at options there is smart stewardship for the town right now."